Three artists reconstruct the Ganga and various sites around the river, writes Shailaja Tripathi

Before it reaches any exhibition space, any work of art has already gone through several processes which are not just physical in nature. Prior to having a dialogue with the viewer, it has been in conversation with the artist, who conceptualised it, shaped it and lived with it. A work of art is that personal.

“River, Body & Legends” is a similar, a highly personalised journey, undertaken by three women artists from the Ganga at Gomukh to Gangasagar.

As Koumudi Patil, Radha Gomati and Shanthamani Muddaiah, travelled along the Ganges with some financial support from the Hebbar Foundation, their experiences, memories and influences drawn from the sites mingled and at times fed off each other. The result is this multi-media show — a vast body of work comprising photographs, installations, video works and sculptures — which is on at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts till March 23.

The endeavour had its seeds in Radha Gomaty's experience. Struggling with personal issues in 2007, she sought refuge in the legendary river. And as strange as it may sound, she reached Varanasi and one day, cast herself into the river and let herself drift. “I just wanted to let go. When I opened my eyes, I found a huge group of crows hovering over me obviously thinking me to be a dead body. One of them was very close and when I opened my eyes, they flew away,” says Radha, who trained in painting at M.S. University in Baroda.

A year later at an art camp in Sikkim, Radha narrated her experience to Koumudi and Shantha and the journey had begun right then, at least in their minds, though the actual journey took off in the end of 2009, from Varanasi to Farakka. Ganga had indeed changed Radha's life and she was there again, repeating the act to produce an entire series of photographs now on display at the IGNCA. The photographs were taken by Shantha, who undertook a similar project. She made three casts of her body, coated with camphor bits, set aflame, another with marigold petals and the third with ashes set afloat in the Ganga at Varanasi. It resulted in a series of photographs which captured the whole process of the bodies, disintegrating and eventually disappearing into the water.

The artists differ in terms of approach but it is the performative aspect of their art works which links them up. “I think, it's because Ganga is all about the flow, a movement that never stops. That kind of reflects in our art as well and that's why we even settled for a space like Maati Ghar. Its circular structure aligns to the theme,” explains Kanpur-based Kaumudi.

While Koumudi ventures into that abstract space — her black and white dip photographs where she made a cast of her head and kept it in the freezing waters of Gaumukh, a spin on the ritualistic dip — Radha's fibreglass sculptures are laden with myths and legends and Shantha, through the body. Bangalore-based Shantha navigates two styles here. At times, she is looking at Ganga through a human body, for instance a vertebra about 25 feet in length, in charcoal, and elsewhere Shantha gets into a documentative mode in her series on the farmers turned labourers along the banks of Ganga near Patna. “They have sold their lands to the brick makers because they want that rich alluvial soil of Ganga to make those bricks. Those who are making it don't need it because they still live in those thatched houses. For whom are they making these bricks? It's for us, the cities,” says Shantha.

And has the journey given them a new insight into the river? “Yes. The ritualistic aspect is attached with just a few kms of the river. Beyond that it is the lifeline for so many sustaining the economy,” feels Shantha. Radha, on the other hand recounts how she filled a bottle with Ganga water a few years ago and the water has remained crystal clear. “I do agree that there is a lot of pollution but at the micro level, the river is very clean. The water I got has remained the way it was. I take swigs from it once in a while.”

About the artists

While Radha Gomati and Shanthamani Muddaiah are products of M.S. University, Baroda, Koumudi did her MFA from Santiniketan.

Manikarnika Ghat, believed to be the oldest ghat, appears in the works of Radha and Koumudi. Radha, after spending a full winter night at the Manikarnika Ghat, found resonance in flames, Koumudi has done an installation reconstructing the site. Shanthamani is formally trained in the art of paper making. Radha Gomati runs an NGO in Kochi, where she lives.